Jet skis are fizzing under the Sheppey Crossing as I drive through the two arches that mark the entrance to the island. It is not the most obvious place to bring my mum for our first post-lockdown break. The Isle of Sheppey, on the north-east coast of Kent, an hour from London, is a place often dismissed by people who call the locals “Swampies” and believe the island is one long sprawl of chalet parks. More fool them – they are missing out. Sheppey is a place of wide skies where lapwings in shot satin party dresses pirouette across the fields.
We travel to the far end of the island through the traditional resort of Leysdown-on-Sea, with its fish and chip shops and amusement parlours. We pass the statue of 1900s aircraft pioneers the Short Brothers, their arms held aloft in amazement at the feats of the Royal Aero Club, which once had its home at nearby Muswell Manor. It was here that some of Britain’s earliest aviators first took to the skies, and in 1909 it was visited by the Wright Brothers.
Further along an unmade track we spot a line of remote cabins atop the sea wall. This is where we are staying. I climb up through the dunes to find our idyllic beachside cabin – the Beach House – with wooden shutters and a wide porch. It is all light and air, with the sea breeze drifting through and curlew singing arias out on the strandline.
Inside I find a beautifully designed space with battered armchairs, and unusual touches: the bathroom washbasin has been created from an old sousaphone and the lampshades from cymbals. It is the perfect place to tuck away and relax in these strange times. A place to finish reading those last few books in your lockdown library or forget the strains of trying to educate your children and let them loose to play instead.
Overcome by a burst of holiday fever, I want to dance around with joy at the newly minted pleasure of a weekend getaway – all the sweeter for the realisation that I must never take it for granted again.
Walk the North Kent Marshes – while the solitude lasts
I walk down salt-blasted wooden steps through a garden of sea spurge and marram grass. Beyond the picket fence is the beach. The sky is washed with mussel blue, reflecting the colours of the shells scattered on the sands below, and the beach is deserted save for the oystercatchers, flying like chevrons above the sea.
The tide is in. I can’t wait to swim, a pleasure I have not had since February. The water is warm and silky as I step in. Yes, really. It heats slowly as the tide crawls across the mud of the estuary. I pause and count to three. Having waited this long I want to delay that pleasure a little longer. I launch myself in and breaststroke out, feeling muscles reawaken in salt water. I want to keep going, pulling away, but I flip on my back and stroke towards my mum who is scavenging for shells along the tideline.
Later, we sit on the veranda drinking wine and enjoying a something-and-nothing chat, tight in our bubble after months of face masks and hand gel. The oystercatchers reappear as the tide slips away and our swimming costumes dry in the breeze. “It’s like I’ve landed on another planet,” mum says as the silence expands around us.
That night a storm picks up. We light the woodburner and sit watching the flames before heading to sleep in cosy cabin bedrooms as the wind flies across the wheat fields.
I am woken by oystercatchers trilling in the dawn. We head out for a walk, crunching our way past the deserted naturist beach and on to Kent Wildlife Trust’s South Swale nature reserve, awash with purple sea lavender. In the winter elegant hen harriers ghost across the salt marsh. Today, we are buzzed by swallows flying low above the brackish pools.
That afternoon we travel across the island, stopping at Brambledown Farm shop to stock up on local cheeses and honey made by the inmates of Elmley prison. The road leads to an area called the Isle of Harty. As we crest the hill we are greeted by a view of an expanse of old grazing marsh dotted with salt mounds once worked by the Romans. The farmers here are working hard to manage the land for wildlife. Lemon-curd-coloured wagtails bob across the grassland, twisting in mid-air to snatch at flies. We stop to watch a marsh harrier gliding across the corn fields, dark shadowing the ground, in the hope of flushing a meadow pipit from its perch.
At the very end of this road to nowhere, in the hamlet of Harty, sits St Thomas the Apostle church, at least 1,000 years old and now open four days a week. Inside, the pews are lit by oil lamps and stained-glass windows show farming life throughout the seasons and the barn owls that can sometimes be seen hunting here at dusk. Tiny pots of homemade chutney can be bought by dropping coins in an honesty box.
Essex rediscovered: ghosts and falcons on a rural ride
Nearby is the newly reopened Ferry House Inn, now serving food again, from its kitchen garden. The island is full of unexpected delights. To the north, a short walk from the Sheerness rail terminus, lies historic Blue Town, home of the Criterion Theatre, a restored Victorian music hall where you can watch classic cinema and order cream teas (the tea room/bar and box office reopens on 6 Aug, the cinema 28 Aug) . The nearby Grade II-listed Rose Street Cottage of Curiosities, which normally brings local history to life and runs children’s events, art and poetry workshops throughout the year, will once again be a lovely stop-off when restrictions are lifted.
The tide is in once again as we return to the cabin with just time to take another dip before lighting the barbecue. Across the water I can see the fashionable seaside town of Whitstable, visited by so many people wishing to escape the city. Sheppey has been the poor cousin for too long, but it deserves to be loved. It is a wilder place of colourful characters, unspoiled beaches and endless skies, a place where the world and its worries seem far away.
• Accommodation at the Beach House (sleeps four from £150 a night) was provided by Canopy & Stars
Carol Donaldson is author of On the Marshes: A Journey Into England’s Waterlands (Little Toller Books, £10). Also available from Guardian Bookshop
SIX MORE CABINS IN ENGLAND
This 1945 oak-and-larch fishing trawler has been converted into a cosy kingsize bedroom with a porthole-style door – and there’s an adjoining shack housing a kitchen and a walk-in shower. The characterful cabin sits in a private 1.2-hectare (three-acre) forest on a smallholding in the Fens, near Ely. It’s an off-grid property, powered by solar panels and has a woodburner fashioned from the boat’s engine. Overlooking the countryside there is a deck made from reclaimed sleepers with table and chairs, a fire pit and a rolltop bath.
• From £140 a night, sleeps two, hostunusual.com
Wrangler’s Den, Nottinghamshire
This ranch-style cabin is inspired by the owners’ time in the Rocky Mountains, hence the rocker on the porch and the odd wagon wheel and cowboy hat. Horses in the field next door continue the prairie vibe. There are two bedrooms, a kitchen-living area with a woodburner and a bathroom. The cabin is on the edge of Sherwood Forest in the picturesque Dukeries area of Nottinghamshire, and is a good spot for wildlife-watching – visitors include hares, deer, kestrels and red kites.
• From £135 a night, sleeps four, qualityunearthed.co.uk
The Lakehouse, Cheshire
This newly renovated open-plan cabin is by the lake in the grounds of 18th-century Coddington Mill. It is a warm, wood-clad space with a woodburner, en suite bathroom and bifold doors to the terrace, which has a copper bath for secluded outdoor soaking. Guests can cook with local honey, eggs, fruit and veg, or eat at the Cock O’Barton pub, a mile away. The cabin is close to the Sandstone Trail, a 34-mile walking route, and a 20-minute drive from the walled city of Chester.
• From £145 a night, sleeps two, canopyandstars.co.uk
Water Lily Lodge, Essex
This wooden lodge is on the edge of a secluded lake in the Colne valley, surrounded by Teybrook Farm’s eight hectares of woodland, and seven miles from Colchester. There is an open-plan living area, three bedrooms and a deck with a hot tub. The owners recently built Kingfishers Nest, a smaller cabin for couples, in another lakeside location. Guests can arrange to fish in the lake, the nearest pub is a couple of miles away, and the beaches and oyster shacks of Mersea Island are a short drive away.
• From £120 a night, sleeps six, coolstays.com
Billy Goat cabin, Herefordshire
This quaint gabled cabin is in a copse surrounded by fields, but just three miles from Hereford. The double bed is on a mezzanine level and there’s a downstairs futon for two as well, along with a woodburner. Outside there’s a fire bowl and pizza oven, plus a compost loo. For those who like outdoor dips, nearby Lugg Meadows is a popular wild swimming spot.
• From £100 a night, sleeps up to four, coolcamping.com
Buttercup Cabin, east Yorkshire
Rather than wood, this cabin is made from straw bales, with clay-plastered walls and oak beams. It has its own garden within Village Farm in the hamlet of Brind, three miles from the market town of Howden. There is an en suite bedroom and a kitchen–living area, plus a deck with picnic bench, sunlounger and barbecue. Buttercup Cabin is a good option for a car-free break: it is a mile from Howden railway station, which is on the London to Hull line, and also has connections to Leeds and York.
• From £60 a night, sleeps two, oneoffplaces.co.uk
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